Fritjof Capra is well-known and famed as one of the most important authors on new science and systems research. I found Capra’s Tao of Physics in 1985, at a time when my life was in a complete reorientation. In this situation, Capra’s books The Tao of Physics and The Turning Point reflected the turning point in my own life.
The Tao of Physics hit me as a lightning, but what a blessing was that hit! The impact of the book on my personal journey was comparable only to my discovery of the I Ching and Taoism, as well as the psychoanalytic teaching of the late Françoise Dolto (1908-1988). Besides Capra’s intellectual brilliance and exquisite use of language, it’s the simplicity of his diction, and his unpretentious way to relate other people’s achievements and remarkable traits with accuracy and tact that make Capra stand out not just as a scientist, but as an encyclopedic scholar.
The fact that his books have become worldwide bestsellers over many years, and were translated in all major languages of the world shows his immense popularity and may also be a signal that his message is accepted by the intelligent strata of modern society. Yet, The Tao of Physics asserts that both physics and metaphysics lead inexorably to the same knowledge, or are two visions of the universe that complement one another. The book was a door opener for many people while it was first regarded as a somewhat too daring perspective put in the world by a scientist.
It is worthwhile to have a closer look at some biographical details which will help to better understand his stand in life, and his mission.
Fritjof Capra was born February 1st, 1939. His birth in the sun sign Aquarius may or not be considered an auspicious sign of his later career and his mission for ecology which reflects a foremost concern of the Aquarius Age into which we are currently heading. The son of the Austrian poet Ingeborg Capra-Teuffenbach, Capra graduated in 1966 at the University of Vienna with a doctorate in theoretical physics. He studied with Werner Heisenberg and researched and taught particle physics and systems theory at the University of Paris (1966–1968), the University of California, Santa Cruz (1968–1970), the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center (1970), Imperial College, London (1971–1974) and the Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory (1975–1988). While at Berkeley, he was a member of the Fundamental Fysiks Group, founded in May 1975 by Elizabeth Rauscher and George Weissmann, which met weekly to discuss philosophy and quantum physics. He also taught at U.C. Santa Cruz, U.C. Berkeley, and San Francisco State University.
After touring Germany in the early 1980s, Capra co-wrote Green Politics with Charlene Spretnak in 1984.
He is fluent in German, English, French and Italian. He contributed to the screenplay for the movie Mindwalk (1990), starring Liv Ullman, Sam Waterston and John Heard. The film is loosely based on his book, The Turning Point (1987).
Capra’s ecological vision proposes modern society to abandon conventional linear thought and the mechanistic view of the universe, and develop a holistic science paradigm. He is a founding director of the Center for Ecoliteracy in Berkeley, California, which promotes ecology and systems thinking in primary and secondary education.
According to Capra, our economic and social problems such as unemployment, crime, pollution or global warming are the result of a perception crisis in modern society. A globally networked world cannot be understood any more within the framework of a reductionist and mechanistic science as it was practiced by Descartes and Newton, but needs to be transformed into a holistic and organic view of reality. Once this view is adopted, it will be obvious how many hidden connections there are between phenomena that the old worldview considers as separate, and how much in life, and in living systems, co-evolves by means of an often invisible interdependence.
As Capra explained in a lecture at Mill Valley School District, April 18, 1997, entitled Creativity and Leadership in Learning Communities, which was published by the Center for Ecoliteracy, ecoliteracy means to be ‘ecologically literate’: the understanding of ecological communities, also called ecosystems, and using those principles for creating sustainable communities. Ecology is a term derived from the Greek word oikos (household); thus it conveys the study of the relationships between all members of the household called ‘Earth.’ Ecological thinking is thus concerned with relationships, connectedness and context; in science it is called systems thinking. In the same lecture he reports that one of the early insights of systems thinking was the realization that every living system is a network. At first, ecologists formulated the concepts of food chains and food cycles, and these were then expanded to the concept of the food web.
The Web of Life, a book that Capra published in 1996, is an old idea, which has been used by poets, philosophers, and mystics throughout the ages to convey their sense of the interwovenness and interdependence of all phenomena. In this sense, systems theory is actually a link back to the oldest of science traditions, which by itself proves that science, too, is cyclic as everything else in life.
In his leadership programs, Capra stresses the fact that leaders could learn to understanding themselves using the systems view to being able to bring about emergence. This kind of leadership needs to be team leadership, not single leadership, as in all self-organizing systems leadership is distributed, and responsibility becomes ‘a capacity of the whole.’ Leadership thus consists, according to Capra, in facilitating the emergence of new structures, and to incorporate the best of them into the organization’s design.
There are other important facts about Capra that are perhaps lesser known, and partly explain why he has this phenomenal lucidity, while he works as a scientist and yet in his books by far surpasses the limitations of this profession and the worldview of most of his professional colleagues, except those on his own level of genius. Capra said somewhere in his books that he was raised in a quite matriarchal environment, an environment virtually deprived of males. He was raised by three women, and they were all single, for different reasons: his mother, his grandmother and his great grandmother. And they lived together with many animals on the big farm.
All this is important, I think, for understanding his basically non-judgmental worldview and his ability to understand people from ultra-orthodox to very liberal with the same generosity and magnanimity.
Capra is truly exceptional in this respect. This can be seen in his personal and autobiographic volume Uncommon Wisdom (1989) which is a recollection of conversations with remarkable people, and at the same time a kaleidoscope of anecdotes form the life of a truly lively and communicative human being. The other noteworthy instance from Capra’s life is his long involvement with the counterculture and his meeting with most of the celebrities of that culture, as for example Timothy Leary, Terence McKenna, Gregory Bateson, or Ronald David Laing and Thomas Szasz, the founders of the antipsychiatry movement.
Besides Capra’s intellectual brilliance and exquisite use of language, it’s the simplicity of his literacy, and his unpretentious way to relate other people’s achievements and remarkable traits with a certain modesty that make Capra stand out as a truly universal and encyclopedic scholar. The fact that his books have become worldwide bestsellers over many years, and were translated in all major languages of the world has its explanation here. In addition, it’s Capra’s extraordinary human skills, his ability to communicate across scientific disciplines together with an integrative mindset and attitude that make him such an important alternative figure in the mainstream science environment.
Capra is in my view one of the most important holistic thinkers of our times, and perhaps even the most important of our science philosophers today.